How many legitimate contenders are there to win the NBA title? Before the season, the almost universally agreed upon answer was two. The Warriors breezed through everyone in the Western Conference last season except the Thunder, whose best player they lured away this summer. The Cavaliers play in the East, which is enough of an explanation.
But thanks to an improved bench and a refocused group of stars, the Clippers emerged as a supposedly worthy challenger over the first sixth of the season. Their defense stiffened up and funneled more drivers to an ever-imposing DeAndre Jordan, and somehow Austin Rivers became an actually good NBA player. They went 14-2 over their first 16 games with a gaudy point differential, and even waxed the Spurs on the road on the second night of a back-to-back. Their always-fragile chemistry was holding together and they were blowing the doors off of everyone.
Then they took off on a little road trip and dropped three straight against the Pistons, Pacers, and Nets. Not exactly the mark of a contender. Those losses, however, look less significant now after the Clippers dominated the Cavaliers in Cleveland tonight, winning 113-94 and holding LeBron James to his fewest points in a game this season.
Chris Paul was fantastic tonight, scoring 16 and notching nine assists without a turnover. Paul is a fantastic passer, but his greatest talent is his floor direction. Tonight he was as active as ever, demanding the ball in the post in specific instances, directing his corps of shooter around the floor, and even pulling up in LeBron’s face when the situation called for it.
Nobody had a particularly great game for the Clippers, which is a strong sign that they don’t need spectacular individual performances to overcome their holes as a team (which are primarily on the wing). They assisted on 33 of their 42 field goals and held the Cavs to just 28 made shots. Every bench player who played double digit minutes aside from old man Paul Pierce had a positive point differential. The game was close until the third quarter, at which point the Clippers pulled away. Check out this little 8-0 run that they put together to separate. Ty Lue bisected it with a timeout, but they ran out on Cleveland over and over again and more or less ended the game right there.
So in their first game against one, the Clippers appear to have the juice to hang with a defending conference champion. I am still skeptical that they won’t devolve into sniping at each other the next time things go wrong, and their bench has been punching above their weight, but they bounced back from a bad losing streak to wax LeBron and the Cavs. Twenty games is large enough sample size to tentatively project forward over the course of a season and the Clippers appear to be legit. Who knows if they can beat the Warriors, who have had their number, but they’ll get a chance to next Wednesday.